Now on CD! – Claire Cowan’s incandescent score for the RNZB’s recent “Hansel and Gretel”, played by the NZSO with Hamish McKeich

CLAIRE COWAN – Hansel and Gretel; a Ballet in Two Acts

Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Recording produced by John Neill and Claire Cowan
Assistant Producer: Brent Stewart
Pro-Tools Editor: William Philipson
Illustration and Design: Fuller Studio

Verses: Amy Mansfield
Reader: Jonny Brugh

Recorded 2020 at Stella Maris Chapel, Seatoun, Wellington

After reading various reviews of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of Auckland composer Claire Cowan’s Hansel and Gretel, toured by the company during 2019, I’m left feeling like one of the “gentlemen of England now abed” from Shakespeare’s Henry V play, those whom the monarch prophesised would “think themselves accurs’d” for not being at Agincourt to share in the splendour of the occasion’s success. And now, having listened to the enticingly-presented double CD set of the ballet’s music which the NZSO with conductor Hamish McKeich subsequently recorded, I feel doubly aggrieved at having missed out on seeing what “sounds like” a cornucopian feast of excitement, energy, colour and drama, if the music alone is anything to go by.

Of course, judging by the critical adulation given last year’s aforementioned stage production, this could well be a work that has now begun its journey towards becoming the balletic equivalent of German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s well-known operatic setting of the Grimm Brothers’ classic fairy-tale, and thus a staple of any self-respecting ballet company’s repertoire. So, there may be hope for me yet!

Cowan’s experience of writing for dancers previous to this production had been in the contemporary field, so writing a ballet score, with the story and music “leading the way” and dictating what the dancers do was a new experience for her. Having met RNZB choreographer Loughlan Prior, who conveyed to her his long-held desire to make a ballet from the classic Brothers Grimm Hansel and Gretel story, Cowan agreed to undertake the project with him,  firstly trying out different “slants” on the original story and characterisations to give the scenario a fresh and more contemporary feeling. Working with Prior highlighted the specific requirements for dance music , such as the care needed when choosing time signatures and tempi, even if Cowan found that her choreographer preferred her music’s symmetrical rhythms to the angularities of 5/4 or 7/4 – but she confesses she simply didn’t want to be confined to 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 the whole time!

A dancer herself as a child, she had gone back to listen to some of the ballet classics –  Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Stravinsky – to “check out” what those composers did, watching a  actual production of “The Nutcracker” and finding herself surprised at how much more music there was besides those well-known “iconic” moments in the score, some of which seemed to her like “filler” – Cowan promised  she would set herself the goal in her own work of giving those continuity moments as “magical” a quality as anything else in the score through constant reiteration of variants of the main themes, so that the music’s special distinction was always present.

Though she’s actually not the first woman to compose a ballet for the New Zealand Ballet Company, as has been claimed in some quarters – Dorothea Franchi’s work Do-Wacka-Do, written in 1956, firstly as a jazz combo, and later as a suite rescored for full orchestra, was (coincidentally, like Cowan’s) a revisiting of 1920s musical styles (Franchi called her work “good old American Jazz”) frequently performed by the Company, and (again, like Hansel and Gretel) one toured throughout the country in 1961 with piano (the composer’s?) accompaniment – Cowan’s “Hansel and Gretel” is, however, definitely the first full-length ballet by a woman to be performed by the RNZB, Franchi’s work having usually been part of a “double bill”, or performed with other smaller separate items.

The 2019 tour of Cowan’s and Prior’s work, having been such a success, it seemed wholly appropriate for the venture to be preserved in one form or another – the composer certainly felt that the work could be “shared” with many more people who didn’t have the opportunity to attend one of the live performances via a recording. Conductor Hamish McKeich encouraged  Cowan to approach the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with a proposal that reflected both the success of the live performances and the obvious prestige of association with the same for the orchestra, the result being that fifty of the players’ services were donated by the Orchestra to the undertaking, with Hamish McKeich the obvious choice as conductor. The chosen venue was the Stella Maris Chapel at Seatoun in Wellington with John Neill, of Park Road Post producing the recording. Cowan embarked on a crowd-sourced Boosted campaign to make up the remainder of funds needed for the project, and with all the arrangements and the planning in place, its completion seemed certain.

This of course being 2020, nothing was thus assured, with a community outbreak of Covid-19 in Auckland in August bringing plans to a standstill. Undeterred, though at considerably greater expense, Cowan continued the process piecemeal with a series of two-and-fro operations between Auckland and Wellington , the work having to be recorded in sections with different instrumental groups, and painstakingly dovetailed together at the end. It’s a tribute to the determination, expertise and patience of everybody concerned that the end result seems to my ears as magnificent as if there were no disruptions!

From the Overture’s beginning the music is a kaleidoscopic delight of sensation and impulse, the piece illustrating a burgeoning of things to come in the story from what seem like wistful, everyday situations.  It’s beyond the scope of this review to describe the whole ballet, but the opening scene gives the listener more than enough enticement to pursue the wonders that the story in its entirety delivers. The Street with its ceaseless comings-and-goings movement illustrates the world of the children’s family, the piquant detailing of busy-ness and cheerful purpose set against the frequent singing lines which depict care and longing, as well as something of the family’s circumstances in a world of harsh economic realities.

A Mary Poppins-like frisson of premonition introduces The witch’s ice-cream bicycle, the composer cleverly blending wonderment and unease at her antics, then normalising her presence by having her disappear into the falling dusk along with everybody else. Cowan illustrates her mastery of transition here, morphing the crepuscular ambiences into a kind of night-life scenario as both colours and impulses begin to repeople the scene, taking us from this into the children’s family home (no cruel and heartless stepmother, here, but simply loving and caring parents), where Dinner is being served, the parents obviously doing their best to remain cheerful, passages for solo violin and strings expressing the family’s bonds of love and care , while various other passages (wind and brass) suggest the paucity of fare.

The ear is constantly tickled by Cowan’s invention, each impulse pf movement and phrase of melody a suggestive experience for the listener. Particularly touching is the Pas de Deux for the Mother and Father, blending characterful concerted movement with complete freedom, the imagination both shaped but unconstrained by limitations of time and space – it was here I strongly felt Cowan’s experience as a film composer coming through, in her evocation of a “state of things”, one into which we as listeners were readily invited to observe and “feel”.

The rest follows the outlines of the Grimm Brothers’ classic story, though with some particularly “tasty” ingredients added, suggested by sequence-titles like The Witch’s Baking Charleston , Cowan‘s 1920s settings having liberally spiced the music with Broadway and jazz influences. In general, the music for the second part is brighter, brassier and more extrovert, as befits the blandishments of the gingerbread house scenario in which the children find themselves. Across this, recurring themes knit the episodes into a compelling whole, with associated groundswells of emotion bubbling up in places like the reprise of the Pas de Deux for the Mother and Father while looking for their children, a self-confessed favourite moment in the work for the composer!

The CDs contain a “bonus” at the end of the ballet’s action, a retelling of the story in verse, written by Amy Mansfield, here, racily delivered by Jonny Brugh, of 800 Words and What We do in the Shadows fame, to the accompaniment of musical excerpts from Cowan’s soundtrack. Mansfield’s words, saucily mixing finely-tuned imagery with drollery and outrageous doggerel, catch the spirit of Cowan’s music with gusto and relish, a delectable introduction/reminiscence of the complete work, if perhaps not, like gingerbread houses themselves, to be indulged in too freely or frequently!

No, the music itself, its creation and realisation, is the true joy of this delectable offering; and, as with the works of those luminaries previously mentioned, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, on the strength of this recording able to stand alone and bear witness to composer Claire Cowan’s stellar achievement. Whether those words of Shakespeare’s quoted at this review’s beginning resonate with you or not, you are urged to investigate this beautifully-appointed recording of “Hansel and Gretel” without delay!

(I am advised by Claire Cowan herself that the set is available only on bandcamp at this stage. For more information click on the following link – for both physical CDs and digital copies. The physical copy comes with a digital download too.)



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